Before we attempt to discuss this new program, MaxDefense would like to go back in time.
Previous attempts by the Philippine Navy to purchase replacements or complements for its old and mostly World War 2-era amphibious vessels date back before the Ramos-era AFP Modernization Program. Most have not been implemented, except for a few new assets.
From 1991, the Philippine Navy planned to have at least 8 units of Logistics Support Vessels (LSV), of which 2 units were bought from the US government and were delivered between 1993 and 1994. The US-made LSV were based on a helicopter-capable design of the US Army's Frank Beeson-class, known in the Philippine Navy as the Bacolod City-class. These were envisioned to replace and complement the ex-USN Landing Ship Tank (LST) and decommissioned Landing Ship-Medium (LSM) that were decimated in the PN's fleet due to obsolescence and lack of funding to support maintenance and operation. Besides the first 2 units, no additional units were ordered.
The 1995 AFP Modernization Act included a requirement for 4 amphibious transport vessels, although it did not specify which type it plans to acquire. But it was very much possible to still be US-made LSVs similar to the Bacolod City-class or an LST design. Between 1995 and 2010, no new amphibious transport vessel was purchased or inducted to the PN.
The plans to purchase Multi-Role Vessels (MRV) actually started in 2005, when the PN's delegation at IMDEX Asia 2005 in Singapore visited and reportedly "evaluated" a Singapore Navy (RSN) Endurance-class landing ship tank/LPD for possible acquisition. *Initially the price quoted to the DND and PN was within the budget, but it appears that the unit price of the Endurance-class increased afterwards, even in the less-automated version. The DND and PN's slow action to push for the program's success was overtaken by commercial and costs issues that ultimately stopped the deal from progressing further .*
|RSS Persistence, an Endurance-class LST/LPD. Was the first chance of the PN to obtain a modern LPD.|
Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons c/o jimmyweeee
Initially, the PN aired its desire to obtain at least two units, with each ship costing around Php 5 billion. Negotiations for the deal included a possible financing by the South Korean government as part of a loan package for military equipment (which the Philippine government did not opt to use), freezing the price against escalations to avoid the same mistake as the Endurance-class project, and bundling each ship with an appropriate number of support crafts and vehicles including the Samsung Techwin KAAV7 (a Korean licensed-built AAV7) and a mobile hospital.
As late as 2010 on the closing days of the Arroyo administration, the PN was reportedly close to completing the deal for at least 1 unit for Php 5 billion. This was the closest attempt by the PN to have its first ever new large amphibious vessel, but this was later cancelled by the current Aquino administration citing re-evaluation for possible contract-detail issues, specifically on suspicion of graft and corruption.
|The PN's MRV plan based on the Makassar-class, packaged with several support craft and vehicles.|
Photo taken from Timawa.net forum c/o Adroth
The Makassar-class is still reportedly being considered for the MRV project, either made by Indonesia's PT PAL or by South Korea's Daesun Shipbuilding.
|An Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) Makassar-class LPD|
Reports also came out that the PN was interested in the Spanish Galicia-class, and even the expensive and advanced San Antonio-class LPD from the US. Spain's Navantia also confirmed that the PN was indeed offered the Athlas-class LPD family, which the Galicia was based.
|Navantia's Athlas LPD 8000|
Photo taken from Navantia website.
In 2009, another transport vessel program was brought up for the PN which was called the Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV), which is a proposal to purchase a used Roll-on, Roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferry from Japan, and its purchase will be supported by DBP Maritime Leasing Corporation Inc. (DMLC), a subsidiary of Development Bank of the Philippines, more widely known as DBP.
The original SSV is a typical Ro-Ro ferry built to commercial Ro-Ro standards, with no helicopter deck or helicopter facilities, no heavy weapon mounts (although machine gun mounts can be added by the PN), and cannot conduct amphibious operations. In short, it is just a sealift vessel to transport vehicles and men between developed ports or piers.
|A typical Japanese-made Ro-Ro. The original SSV project was to purchase a similar ship.|
Photo taken from MarineTraffic.com
Although the request for budget was submitted to the Philippine Congress, delays mounted and this program fizzled after budget allocation was not provided immediately. The specific ship offered to the government was sold to another buyer.
Afterwards, the PN and DND decided to change the technical specifications of the SSV project, moving away from the civilian Ro-Ro type ferry to a small MRV-looking ship, and although still built according to civilian specifications, it would be built according to the navy's requirement, is better armed and more capable than the earlier proposal.
|PT PAL's proposed SSV based on reduced Makassar-class|
|PT PAL's specifications for their SSV offer.|
|ST Engineering's Endurance 120 series.|
Photo taken from ST Engineering's product brochure.
Although not a real replacement for the old PN LST, another amphibious vessel program was brought out and was successfully completed, the Landing Craft Utility (LCU) program, which is a smaller class than the SSV and MRV. The project was completed as the BRP Tagbanua (AT-296) and the "mysterious" BRP Manobo (BU-297) (to be discussed separately). These are small vessel programs and are not intended to replace the LSTs, but rather fill-in a different requirement.
|The BRP Tagbanua (AT-296), the result of the PN LCU project.|
Photo taken from Wikimedia
So why did the PN abandoned the MRV program, and instead replaced it with the SSV program?
It appears that the reason for the change of heart by the navy is, again, budgetary issues.
MaxDefense sources indicate that the PN is not really abandoning the MRV program, but will not be pursued for now due to budgetary issues. The budget is available, but is not enough to pursue at least 2 units of the MRV. Operation tempo and availability was considered in opting to have at least 2 units, which actually makes sense to make sure that there is a ship available at any given time.
As of 2012, the DND and PN have already allocated Php 5 billion for the purchase of a single MRV, and was expecting another Php 5 billion for a second unit as it find the need for at least 2 units to complement each other. But with the PN now actively pursuing new surface combatants that can fight opposing forces (OPFOR) warships and patrol the Philippines' EEZ and territorial waters, the second Php 5 billion originally planned to be allocated for another MRV was diverted to fulfill such plans. The second Php 5 billion was instead allocated to the new frigate program. Also, there is no allocated budget for another MRV from the recently approved 2012-2016 Php 75 billion AFP Modernization short term budget, although the government (specifically the President) can provide special allocation to revive the MRV project if necessary.
With only budget for one MRV, the PN decided that it would make use of the allocated Php 5 billion budget to still pursue two ships, thus moving to the cheaper SSV. As the SSV is just a tad smaller and less capable than the MRV, only a few of the original requirements of the PN might be lost, but most of the major functions of the MRV can still be done by the SSV.
Also, the PN will be actively pursuing the construction of more LCUs similar to the already commissioned BRP Tagbanua to fulfill smaller transport requirements. The PN already released a study based on the Desired Force Mix, and it includes the requirement for around 18 LCUs.
MaxDefense sources have also confirmed the possible purchase of more LSVs similar to the Bacolod City-class in PN service, or new Landing Ships - Tank (LST) from a still undisclosed country, possibly South Korea, giving the PN several options for transport duties should the MRV project fail. These LSVs and LSTs are far cheaper than even the SSV, although are less capable but can still do its job of transporting troops and vehicles. This will all be dependent on the capacity of the government to allocate funds for the PN.
|The PN's Bacolod City-class LSV. More can be obtained due to its cheaper cost should budget be a problem for the MRV or even the SSV.|
Photo taken from Wikimedia
With the transport capability of the PN depleting rapidly as the old LSTs are getting harder to maintain and becoming less capable, getting new transport and amphibious assault ships is equally as important in getting new fighting ships. Whatever the choices are, the PN will be able to replace its old assets and improve its transport capability in the next few years.